The blogging dead

I should have known that our obsession with the undead would end up turning us into a zombie blog – devoid of fresh content, but lurching on, in a grotesque parody of life.

The funny thing is we still get a respectable amount of traffic – a steady background buzz, with occasional inexplicable spikes. If I sold out my principles and put some advertising on the site I could just sit back and watch the fractions of a cent roll in.

Anyway, I’m feeling sorry what whichever low-level NSA analyst has been assigned the thankless task of trawling through our output looking for subversion, so I’ll try to make things a bit more interesting in the weeks ahead. Unless of course the sun appears, in which case we’ll be staying out for the summer….

Post-viral fatigue

So, I was looking at our traffic statistics today, and I noticed that this had happened last week:

That’s right, one of our posts had gone viral. Sort of. For a couple of days. How exciting! Unfortunately, the piece in question was this one, which is whiny and narcissistic, even by our standards. (Though if you ask me I will, of course, claim it was obviously meant ironically.) Also, all the extra traffic came via Plurk; it’s just about possible to imagine that someone was saying something nice about us, but probably not.

Anyway… another week, another list of Second Life blogs that we’re not on, this time over at New World Notes. I guess our omission can be rationally explained by reference to our obscurity, lack of recent SL content, and general rubbishness, but irrational theories are much more satisfying, so I can’t help suspecting that Hamlet is still pissed that we called him a Stalinist that time. (Though, now I’ve looked at it with eyes unclouded by paranoid jealousy, I see that this is actually a list of those blogs which fell outside the top ten, which Hamlet is going to reveal next week, so we might yet make it. If so, please disregard the above.)

2010: The year in review

The year’s end draws nigh, and I feel I should produce some sort if review of the twelve months gone by…

First up, the topic that is dearest to our hearts, this blog. Here’s our top ten posts for the year, by traffic:

  1. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  2. Second Life, with graphics, on the iPhone?
  3. On Second Life and addiction
  4. O Superman
  5. What’s up
  6. Zombie Epidemiology
  7. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
  8. Anatomy of a scandal
  9. Running Away
  10. That gum you like is going to come back in style

The demographics post is top by miles, with nearly as many hits as the rest put together, thanks to Google deciding that it should be the #1 result for the query “second life demographics 2010“. It got a lot of traffic in October, presumably due to media studies students researching start-of-term assignments, with another surge this month, probably because other SL bloggers are preparing their end-of-year posts. I think that the fact that this very slight essay, which I knocked out over one lunchtime back in April, should still be able to masquerade as an authoritative source says more about the paucity of serious academic interest in the topic than any brilliance in my writing.

Of the others, the addiction post benefited from my efforts to promote it by dropping a link into the comments of any blog post that mentioned the topic; the Superman post got a boost after it was featured in the Herald; “What’s up” gets traffic from people looking for pictures of 4 Non Blondes (a Google quirk that has at various times also given us hits from searches for Laura Palmer, Mae West and Catherine Deneuve/Susan Sarandon); the Zombie post is still getting referrals from the Undead Report; the rest, I don’t know, probably just random clicks.

Other posts from this year that I thought were OK, but that didn’t make the top ten:

I’m not sure if there was a theme to our posts this year; possibly something about the importance of narrative in the formation of identity, or some such pseudo-intellectual nonsense.

The year in Second Life? Stagnation, layoffs and general management chaos are the things that spring to mind; more detailed round-ups can be found at Daniel Voyager’s blog and Your2ndPlace if you’re interested.

In the real world it’s been a busy year politically; the event with the most direct effect on us was the return of a Conservative government to power in the UK. It’s been a bit of a phoney war since the summer, with only some student-led skirmishes, but the cuts will start to really kick in from now on, and the class struggle should get more intense. 2010 saw the right resurgent over in the US too, without much sign of the left regrouping; hopefully that will change in the months ahead.

In our last New Year review I suggested that we would be posting more general cultural comment during 2010; this remained, alas, an unfulfilled ambition, but I have belatedly managed to think about picks for book, film and album of the year.

Choosing a book was the hardest task; looking back I see that I didn’t read a single new novel all year, though I did buy a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which is glaring at me accusingly from the shelf. Instead I stuck to the classics, of which my favourite was Fielding’s Tom Jones. I hardly saw any new films either; from a restricted field I would have to give the nod to The Social Network. I did buy a lot of new albums; the two I’ve listened to most are Majesty Shredding by Superchunk and The Suburbs by Arcade Fire.

And so to the future… I expect I’ll keep this project going, out of habit if nothing else. Things might be a little quiet in January, while I’m busy with my New Year resolutions – do more serious writing, get more exercise – but once these have been discarded it’ll be back to our usual cavalcade of whimsy.

I’ll finish by sending our best wishes for 2011 to all our readers – may the New Year find you happy, healthy and prosperous.

300

This is our 300th post; it’s taken a little under a year for us to make it from 200, just about as long as it took for our second century, but a good bit faster than our first ton. I’ve been responsible for the vast majority of these posts; at about 250 words a go that’s the equivalent of a fair-sized novel.

Has it all been worthwhile? I’d struggle to say that the world would be a poorer place without the benefit of my bon mots, but I fancy that there may have been an occasional felicitous phrase that brought a smile to the face of one reader or another.

I have no doubt though that the principal beneficiary of all this literary endeavour has been me. There was an interesting article in the Guardian this week, which examined the therapeutic potential of blogging, for those who have experienced life-threatening illness or other trauma. I have never had to face such a trial, thankfully, but I do find that the discipline of composing a regular column is a powerful antidote to the anomie of day-to-day life.

Anyway, I reckon that persevering for this long qualifies me as some sort of blogging guru, so I feel that I should be sharing the benefits of my wisdom with my less-experienced fellows.

What have I learned about the art of blogging? Precious little if I’m honest, but here are a few pointers:

  • Avoid being too restrictive about your subject matter; you may think you have a lot to say about something, but you are likely to find inspiration running dry sooner than you think.
  • Conversely, don’t be afraid to repeat yourself; if you come back to a thought often enough you may eventually express it more or less the way you want.
  • Don’t look at the statistics page too often; no matter how low your expectations your traffic figures are likely to be discouraging.
  • Do read lots of other blogs, and leave lots of comments; if you’re stuck for a topic to write about then rip off someone else’s idea (but do link back to them).
  • Don’t stop; once you let it drift for a while it’s hard to get started again.
  • Finally, and most importantly, don’t ever think about all the useful things you could be doing if you weren’t wasting your time with your stupid blog.

Virtual alchemy

When Second Life Shrink was in its planning stages a few years ago I checked out several different blog-hosting services before settling on WordPress. I liked that it was open-source, and a couple of people I knew had recommended it, but what sealed my decision was the amount of statistical information that the platform provides. As well seeing the raw visitor numbers I can analyse where they came from, which pages they have looked at, and which links they have followed, providing me with hours of pointless distraction.

Until fairly recently just about all our traffic came straight from search engines. We’re top on Google for “second life shrink” of course, and lately we’ve been doing well with “second life demographics” too. “Second life addiction” and “second life psychology” seem to come and go; we’ve been on the front page with both of those at various times, though currently we’re languishing down on page three, where only dedicated searchers will find us. We tend to do much better on Bing for some reason; I’m not sure whether that should be a source of pride or shame.

We used to get very few hits from direct links; unsurprisingly, with a couple of exceptions, no one has ever felt that any of our posts were worth drawing to the attention of a wider audience. Recently though we have been getting a steady stream of visitors from a whole host of unlikely sites. I won’t link to them for reasons that will become obvious; suffice to say that they are not the sort of places we would like to be associated with.

I figured that this was likely to be the result of some sort of traffic-generating scam; and a little research has proved that this is the case. The program in question promises to deliver hits by automatically visiting millions of blogs and spoofing an incoming link from the site that is being promoted; the theory is that bloggers, their curiosity piqued, will follow the link back, and then purchase diet pills, or click on Google ads, or otherwise participate in whatever shady e-commerce scheme the site owner is counting on to make back the $70 the package costs.

At least this sting only leaves the would-be web-entrepreneur out by the cost of the program; most of the get-rich-quick-with-Google/Twitter/Facebook offers that litter the web these days are potentially much more expensive. Victims are lured in by the promise of secret marketing tricks for a payment of only a couple of dollars, but after handing over their credit card details they find that they have subscribed to a “newsletter”, for which they are billed $50 or more a month. Of course they can cancel any time, by simply calling a premium-rate number in the Virgin Isles, staffed by operators who will put you on hold for 20 minutes before asking for your bank account number so that they can process the transaction. These sharp practices are not always confined to the murkier recesses of the internet; last year Facebook was awash with similar scams that tricked people into signing up for overpriced cellphone services, though these have been mostly purged now.

What’s interesting about these confidence tricks is not that they are new, but that they are ancient. Persuading people to suspend their disbelief by invoking some magical new paradigm must go back to the days when enterprising cavemen extracted shiny pebbles from their gullible fellows by promising to share the secrets of how to generate revenue using that new “fire” thing that everyone was talking about. From medieval alchemists tuning lead into gold, through Gregor MacGregor’s tales of colonial riches, to Charles Ponzi‘s arbitrage of the International Reply Coupon, today’s blog fraudsters stand in a proud line of grifters and shakedown-artists.

While I like to think that I can see through crude scams such as these, I have to admit that I am not immune to the subtler form of self-deception that keeps me handing money over to disreputable virtual-world-pedlars, not in the belief that it will enrich me materially (nothing so base), but in the hope that I might be able to reinvent myself as a better person (despite all the evidence to the contrary). The alchemists of old sought the Philosophers’ Stone, the mystical substance said to grant enlightenment and immortality; perhaps Second Life, which promises to allow one to transcend the limitations of corporeality, is its modern equivalent.

Second Life demographics – a brief review

We received a rare response to our last piece, from T Linden himself no less. True, T had descended from Olympus to tell us that we were wrong about everything, but still, some attention is better than no attention.

Anyway, one part of his comment caught my eye – “Second Life is a diverse community”. This is a sentiment that is often heard around the SL blogosphere, but how true is it? I did a quick review of the literature to see if there was much evidence one way or the other.

There are three metaverse-related publications that I read regularly (or semi-regularly) – the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking and Game Studies – but I couldn’t remember ever having seen a quantatative study focussing specifically on the demography of SL in these journals, and sure enough nothing turned up when I searched their archives. A further search through the biomedical, psychological and sociological databases that I have access to drew a similar blank. The closest thing to a scientific study on this topic that I could find is this piece of work presented back in 2007 on the SL Survey blog. The Second Life wiki does have a page entitled “Demographic Studies”, but this is marketing data rather than academic work.

There are quite a few studies that look at other MMORPGs; three that are often cited are Griffiths et al (2003) Breaking the Stereotype: The Case of Online Gaming, Griffiths et al (2004) Demographic Factors and Playing Variables in Online Computer Gaming and Yee (2006) The Demographics, Motivations and Derived Experiences of Users of Massively-Multiuser Online Graphical Environments. Yee’s study is particularly impressive, drawing on data gathered from over 30,000 players over 3 years in his epic Daedalus Project.

The earliest qualitative work that I’m aware of in this area are the case descriptions of MUD users (who were mostly also psychotherapy clients) in Sherry Turkle‘s 1995 book Life on the Screen. A work focussing more on interpersonal and group dynamics is John Suler‘s 1996 book The Psychology of Cyberspace, particularly the section covering his in-depth study of the early graphical MUD The Palace.

More recent qualitative studies include Yee (2006) Motivations for Play in Online Games, Bessière et al (2007) The Ideal Elf: Identity Exploration in World of Warcraft, Hussain and Griffiths (2009) The Attitudes, Feelings, and Experiences of Online Gamers: A Qualitative Analysis and Williams et al (2010) Behind the Avatar: The Patterns, Practices and Functions of Role Playing in MMOs. Good qualitative work dealing specifically with Second Life is harder to find; in fact I couldn’t find any at all. [Update: There is a good qualitative study; I had unaccountably overlooked Coming of Age in Second Life by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff.]

This brief review is not terribly systematic and certainly not comprehensive, but, having read these papers, as well as some of their references and citations, and a load of other work that I haven’t mentioned because it seemed only tangentially relevant, I feel I can hazard a qualified opinion on the question of diversity within the Second Life population, the qualification being that my impression is an overview based on a general familiarity with the source material rather than a rigorously evidence-based analysis.

SL residents may well vary along several dimensions, such as age, gender, nationality, education level and occupational status, but I suspect that a cluster analysis would resolve this seeming heterogenicity into a much smaller number of discrete groupings. Furthermore, I think that below this apparent diversity there may well be a large degree of psychological similarity; in other words, although residents may be different in terms of the demographic categories listed above, when one looks at their internal mental functioning they may have much more in common than one might expect.

If this last proposition is true then it should be possible to draw up a psychological profile of a typical Second Life resident, and to devise some sort of scale that would measure how likely it is that a subject would take to the SL experience, then see if that correlated with any particular personality types. I’m not aware that anyone has published any work like this, though I may well have overlooked it.

I’d be surprised if Linden Lab didn’t have a psychologist on their staff researching this kind of thing, since it would be very useful for marketing purposes, but I guess they wouldn’t want to put it into the public domain.

I have some ideas about the psychological features that one might expect to find in an average Second Life resident, and I’ll expand on these in a future post.

On good authority

Technorati are once again listing Second Life Shrink, and, I’m glad to say, seem to have recognised our influence by giving us an authority score of 112 (our previous best was 4), and an overall ranking of 57,472 (the highest we managed under their old system was 751,289).

I’m not sure why we suddenly seem to have become more authoritative, since we are, by and large, just posting the same rubbish we always have. We have been getting a few more incoming links, notably one from the Alphaville Herald last month referencing our analysis of the JLU story. We did get some increase in traffic on the back of that, though less than I was expecting, more of a blip than a surge.

I suspect our authority will prove to be transient, since Technorati claim that their rankings are calculated over a much shorter period of time than under their old system. I don’t know if ArminasX is planning to update his SL blog list, but if so I hope he does it soon, while our figures are still good.

Falling into the chasm

It was reported yesterday that Facebook had overtaken Google to become the most popular website in the US last week. The social networking site gathered 7.07% of total hits (up 185% on last year), marginally ahead of Google’s 7.03%.

Pundits are suggesting that this is an indication of how people are increasingly using the internet in a different way – instead of searching for information, the theory goes, we are now looking more for social connections.

As we’ve noted before, this type of thinking seems to be driving Linden Lab’s corporate strategy, as they try to market Second Life as a social networking application. They clearly have some way to go to compete with Facebook though, both in the raw numbers – FB has a user base of 400 million, and concurrency of up to a million, against SL‘s figures of 18 million and 80,000 respectively – and in terms of cultural penetration. Major newspapers are still publishing articles that assume that the majority of their readers will never have heard of Second Life, while Facebook references can be found even in traditionally conservative media like legacy comics.

Grace McDunnough posted an interesting piece (illuminating comments too) on the Lab’s marketing strategy a couple of days ago. Referencing a recent Harvard Business School case study, which itself draws on Geoffrey Moore‘s influential 1991 book Crossing the Chasm, Grace concludes that the educational market is a bust, the “adult” market is an embarrassment, and that content creators are being slowly sidelined. What does this leave? A 3D chat service, or, as Grace puts it, “playing house with paper dolls”.

This rings sadly true to me, and seems a terrible waste of the platform’s potential, but I guess there’s no arguing with market forces. It seems that the early adopter community (in which I count myself spiritually, if not strictly speaking temporally) is going to find itself increasingly marginalised. We can only hope that the Facebookisation of Second Life turns into a complete fiasco, M. Linden gets his cards, and a more enlightened management goes back to the original, steady (if limited) business model of taking money from people like me, who are willing to pay a few bucks a month to live out the life of the mind in a virtual world.

Bonfire of the Inanities

Blog-cataloguing website Technorati overhauled its database last month, purging tens of millions of spam blogs which had been making a mockery of their ranking numbers. Unfortunately there seems to have been a fair bit of collateral damage in this operation, as the internet has resounded with the protests of outraged bloggers who have seen their cherished writing projects disappear from the index. I am sad to say that Second Life Shrink was among the casualties; it is no longer possible to check how much authority we have, or see where we rank in the world wide web. Which is just as well probably, since the last time I looked the answers were “not much” and “way down”. (I never really understood how the Technorati ranking worked anyhow, since over the years our place has varied from below 5 million to inside the top half million, while all the time we have been turning out more or less the same rubbish, to more or less general indifference).

I does make me reflect on why I bother to blog at all, especially about something as unimportant as a minority-interest computer fantasy world. I think it’s the very inconsequentiality of the topic that that makes it attractive. It feels good to have strong opinions, because it sustains the illusion that one’s thoughts might actually matter in the grand scheme of things, rather than just being transient chemical reactions in the nervous tissue of a barely sentient creature in one obscure corner of an essentially chaotic cosmos. Strong opinions about important things are risky though; someone else might strongly disagree with you, raising the threat of unrestrained violence, or at least social awkwardness. Much better to confine one’s pontificating to subjects that no one really cares about; whatever I write about, say, IP rights in virtual worlds, I can be fairly sure that, in the unlikely event that anyone is paying attention, they won’t be upset to a degree that they will want to come round to my house and have a fight about it.

Even when I offer my random thoughts about things that might actually be relevant to everyday life, like politics or economics, I know that I’m not going to encounter any serious disagreement, because my voice will be lost in the general hubbub of subjectivity that is the blogosphere. There is no vehicle better than a blog for sounding off without having to think about how others might interpret or respond to your comments. The promise of Web 2.0 – that it would facilitate intellectual interactivity on a global scale – is in danger of being lost, as we bloggers use the medium to reinforce our own preconceptions instead of opening up to the ideas of others. (I’ll stop there before I prove my argument by descending into completely solipsistic nonsense).

Anyway, I’m going to try to re-register with Technorati, since I need to feed my obsession with blog statistics. Our content may be getting a boost soon – our art correspondent Olivia is back at work, and has promised me an article before the end of the month – and I wouldn’t want to miss the increased authority her erudite commentary will undoubtedly bring us.

[I was going to link to a video of the Austin Lounge Lizards performing their track "Bonfire of the Inanities", but YouTube has failed me, so here's another of their numbers, "Jesus Loves Me But He Can't Stand You".]

A Nation of Shopkeepers

The third-quarter SL figures came out the other week, and, as usual, tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes. One statistic in particular caught my eye; the number of monthly unique users, which was just over 750000. This reminded me of the results of a survey of the SL economy released in the spring, which estimated there were around 18000 self-identified virtual businesses.

The 750000 figure will include an indeterminate number of alts, and the 18000 enterprises may each employ more than one person (or some people may run more than one business), but, whichever way you look at it, it’s clear that SL entrepreneurs form only a tiny part of the virtual population.

I have no objection to people using the immersive virtual environment that is Second Life as an opportunity to live out their shopkeeper fantasies; whatever floats your boat I guess. However I do find it irksome when this small minority demand that the whole world should be structured to facilitate their particular brand of role-play, even if this grossly inconveniences everybody else, and, when they don’t get their way, threaten legal action that might destroy the entire system.

Linden Lab should adopt a Zindra-style solution to this problem, and set up a special continent where aspiring virtual business people can be segregated. There they would be free to sell each other shoes and sex-beds, sue one another to their hearts’ content, and leave the rest of us in peace to have fun with our second lives.

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